This is the first book to examine murder through the written word--not only the writings of the killers themselves, but also the story of murder as told in literary fiction and the crime dramas that are now a staple of film and television. The authors--a criminologist specializing in cold cases, written evidence, and forensic science, and an anthropologist who has dealt with the signs and ciphers of organized crime and street gangs in his previous work--are widely recognized experts in this emerging specialty field. Based on extensive research and interviews with convicted murderers, the book emphasizes the often-overlooked narrative impulse that drives killers, with the authors explaining how both mass and serial murderers perceive their crimes as stories and why a select few are compelled to commit these stories to writing whether before, during, or after their horrific acts.
The book also analyzes the written work of killers, using a combination of machine-based linguistic patterning, predictive modeling, and symbolic interpretation, to make sense of the screeds of everyone from the Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer to the Columbine attackers, the Unabomber, and the recent spate of mass shooters using social media as their preferred narrative platform. They present a theoretical perspective of murder that is based on both the criminological evidence and written works. In addition, the authors examine famous literature that has dealt ingeniously with murder and its relationship with real crime, from the Greek tragedians to Truman Capote to modern-day productions such as Making a Murderer.
This unique approach offers a new means to penetrate the minds of murderers, revealing their motives as well as the wider social meanings of this age-old crime and our continuing fascination with it.
Michael Arntfield is associate professor of literary criminology and forensic writing at Western University and a previous Fulbright Chair at Vanderbilt University. He is also a former police detective with over fifteen years' experience across multiple areas of investigative specialization, a continuing government consultant on financial crime and money laundering, and codirector of the Murder Accountability Project in Washington, DC. His true crime television series, To Catch a Killer, is currently in syndication in over a dozen countries and he is routinely sought as an expert commentator on murder and crime news by the international media. He is the author of many previous books.
Marcel Danesi is professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and an internationally-renowned semiotician, lately known for having established a new branch of the discipline, "Forensic Semiotics," which aims to understand the relation of crime and criminality to culture, historical traditions, and symbolism. He has published extensively in various fields of anthropology and semiotics.
“Words matter. What we say tells us a lot about who we are. From its origins in the Bible to Jack the Ripper, the Iceman, and more, murder is on full display here, as both entertainment and serious moral corruption of the soul. The authors make a compelling argument accessible, leaving us with a true understanding of what the murderer is thinking when he or she puts thoughts on paper to justify the evil he or she has committed. Thrilling, engaging, and unique, Murder in Plain English ranks among the most important books to rise from the dust of the true-crime explosion, as it provides a compelling and original journalistic approach and puts some of the most popular—and perhaps important—material of our day to good use.”
—M. William Phelps, New York Times–bestselling author and award-winning investigative journalist
“Riveting and intellectual. Finally a new (and smarter) spin on understanding the deadliest sin—murder. Many books have been written about murder. Many books have been written about storytelling and the power of words. But no book has put these together. Murder in Plain English will satiate your appetite for true crime while digging into the psychological mind of the killer in his own words.”
—Robin Sax, legal analyst and criminal law attorney
“Arntfield and Danesi have done it again! For the past twenty-five years, the study of murder has been monopolized by the tyranny of quantitative social-science research. In a field that desperately attempts to reduce complex human phenomena to black and white, Arntfield and Danesi dive deep into the gray shades of qualitative research and come up with pearls. With the line between media and reality increasingly blurring, this profound examination of the role of narrative in criminality has never been more timely. A milestone in literary criminology!”
—Lee Mellor, criminologist and author of Homicide: A Forensic Psychology Casebook
“Arntfield and Danesi present a fascinating connection between murder and the written word, taking the reader on a rare psychological journey from ancient writings to modern manifestos. Anyone interested in why murderers commit their heinous crimes will find Murder in Plain English a gripping read.”
—Jack Branson and Mary Branson, authors of Delayed Justice: Inside Stories from America’s Best Cold Case Investigators and Murder in Mayberry: Greed, Death, and Mayhem in a Small Town
“An enlightening and fascinating book. A work of incontestable quality . . . highly recommended.”
—Antonio Nicaso, lecturer in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Queen’s University, and internationally recognized expert on organized crime